Irish entertainers on UN list of South Africa visits

State papers 1986: Government under pressure over proposed ban on South African produce as Dunnes Stores strike continued

Dunnes Stores strikers picket outside the store on Henry Street Dublin. The strike began in 1984 and lasted almost three years. Photograph: Dermot O’Shea

Dunnes Stores strikers picket outside the store on Henry Street Dublin. The strike began in 1984 and lasted almost three years. Photograph: Dermot O’Shea

 

A register of sports people and entertainers who travelled to South Africa, published in 1986 by the United Nations Centre Against Apartheid, included well-known Irish personalities.

Irish tennis player Matt Doyle took part in the Altech Open in Johannesburg in October 1985, the UN register said, and 13 Irish entertainers travelled to South Africa at different times from 1981 to September 1985.

The list, contained on the Department of Foreign Affairs file, included Phil Coulter and his wife, the singer Geraldine Branagan, Joe Dolan, Mick Foster and Tony Allen, the Danny Fisher Showband, Cissy Stone, and husband and wife singers Margo and Trevor Burns. Also included were singers Dave and Harry Monks, Tom McGrath, and singer-songwriter Michael Bryan.

The publication was the second time the UN had prepared a register. The first edition was published in 1983, and three other Irish entertainers were included on it: singers Mary O’Hara and Mitch T Mitchell, and comedian Hal Roche. Their names were removed from the register when they pledged to no longer perform in South Africa.

Meanwhile, in Ireland, the Dunnes Stores strikers, who began industrial action in July 1984 when they refused to handle fruit from South Africa, continued on the picket line.

Ban on fruit and vegetables

State papers now in the National Archives, from the Department of Foreign Affairs, show pressure within and outside government while a ban on South African fruit and vegetable was under consideration.

A memorandum for government dated March 19th, brought by then minister for labour Ruairí Quinn, called for a “blanket restriction on the importation of South African fruit and vegetable produce from September 30th 1986” and “in the interim, a licence would be required”.

The licensing would stipulate that only goods not produced with the use of prison labour could be imported.

Then minister for foreign affairs Peter Barry was opposed to the move and had circulated his own memo saying the government should “decide to take no action at this time”.

Attorney general John Rodgers raised concerns about conflicts with the EEC treaty and the risk of retaliation. He also noted the Department of Industry contended that “even the paltry benefit of enhanced moral standing is dubious, since many of our international partners would consider we had little at stake and therefore not sacrificing anything in making our stand”.

Then minister for industry John Bruton wrote to Mr Barry to say he was contacted by Terry Mooney of Kiltale stud in Co Meath, who visited South Africa and believed “the black population is very well catered for with respect to schools and jobs” and “many blacks could be seen mixing freely with everybody in Johannesburg”.

Mr Barry responded with a two-page letter on the apartheid regime.

There was opposition to the ban from Irish businesses. Fruit Importers of Ireland wrote to Mr Quinn, on February 3rd, to warn of the difficulties of finding alternatives to South African produce.

Diplomats under pressure

Irish diplomats abroad also came under pressure. The London embassy was lobbied, documents show. And in a telex from Geneva, dated January 31st, the Irish permanent representative to the UN, Robert McDonagh, said he had agreed to meet his South African counterpart for lunch “a deux”.

“He is an urbane and adroit conversationalist . . . he said they were concerned how we might conduct our investigations [into prison labour] and were anxious to help as they had nothing to hide,” Mr McDonagh said.

Mr McDonagh said when he mentioned sanctions the South African representative maintained “they would encourage extremists”. He also spoke of reform to be announced that would lead to “universal suffrage”, but “not necessarily in a unitary state”.

Mr McDonagh said he expected to be subjected to a campaign, “which may also be conducted through spouses”.

The government agreed, on March 20th, to introduce a licensing system for fruit, vegetables, nuts and juices from October 1st and from January 1st 1987, any importer would have to prove that prison labour was no longer used in the production of the goods.

A letter from then archbishop of Galway, Eamon Casey, also on the file, congratulated the government on its decision.

“May I add my sincere hope that Mr Ben Dunne will act promptly to ensure the end of the strike,” he said.

The Dunnes Stores strike ended in 1987.